Max Joseph is known for digging into the lives of online charlatans on-camera. But for his new film, We Are Your Friends, he had to go behind the scenes in order to document a generation adrift.
The director, who appears as the “on-camera cameraman” helping to suss out the truth in twisted online relationships in MTV’s Catfish, cast Zac Efron as a DJ in his new film. Efron, playing against type, is consumed by anomie and uncertainty, as he’s torn between desires for success in the burgeoning field of EDM (electronic dance music) and a sort of authenticity that seems out-of-reach. It’s an unexpectedly soulful film, one whose advertised dependence on trendy dance beats doesn’t obscure the tensions of growing up.
At 33, Joseph is seated at the center of youth culture, with both a TV series and a movie about the value of being true to oneself in an era more full of distractions than ever. He spoke to TIME about how EDM has changed and why We Are Your Friends is really an indie movie.
TIME: This film is about a fairly specific subculture. How did you make it universal?
Max Joseph: I hope we did that? When I was sitting down to write this—I don’t know what it’s like to live that life. I know a little bit from being on a TV show and being a D-list celebrity, but I don’t know what it’s like to live that rockstar life DJs are living. But I do know what it’s like to read about it and watch it on social media—that was the access point for me. That’s where Cole starts out too. He’s looking at that life through the prism of social media and Instagram and seeing what this life looks like but not living it himself and he’s yearning for it. That seemed to be the most authentic way in, and the best way I knew to write about it authentically.
Catfish requires a great deal of research in order to figure out what, exactly, is going on with your subjects. What sort of research did you do?
We did a lot of research. On Catfish, I’m a co-host and onscreen cameraman, maybe the second onscreen cameraman after Wes Bentley’s turn in American Beauty, which is funny and ironic. But before that, I’d been doing a lot of creative nonfiction. One thing you learn about doing nonfiction is that you’ve got to get it right, fact-check, do your research. You’ve got to not only get the facts right but represent the subject to the world in a way that insiders feel like it’s an access port and outsiders can access it. If you’re too insider, you block access to anyone else. And if you pander too much to people who don’t know anything, you alienate the insiders. There were a lot of things we wanted to get right in the movie. Certainly their lifestyle, but also what they’re doing at the decks and how they make music and what they consider important and how they collaborate with DJs both older and younger. What relationships are common, and what would ring as false. We took pains to make sure it was authentic. And what it’s like to live in the Valley—that was important to get right. Making that real and authentic, making it so people can understand it as a movie without going into more mundane details. Zac’s hand gestures and what he’s doing at the deck. The last thing I’d want would be a young or experienced DJ saying “You can’t do that,” because I’d be the first to say that too!
How would you convince people who aren’t EDM fans, or who have less-than-positive notions of the music and its fans, to see your movie?
EDM is a tricky term. Nowhere in the movie do people say the term. We’re talking about it loosely and it’s part of the conversation for sure. Some people, when they’re saying it, are referring to all electronic music that has ever existed; some are talking about the last three years, because the term came about three or four years ago. EDM is a subgenre of electronic music referring to big-room commercial festival-going music. When people are reacting to EDM, I’m not sure what they’re reacting to, but I know what you’re talking about. What I can tell you is I love electronic music and I have since the ‘90s, since before anything called EDM existed. Electronic music has existed since the ‘70s and it’s almost comical how many subgenres of it there are. I love electronic music and my strategy or the way I wanted to introduce it to an audience that might not be a fan is to simply show the parts of it I love, putting them to the right music and making them fit in the narrative.
You’re 33. Both Catfish and We Are Your Friends are aimed at, and about, people younger than yourself. Do you see yourself as imparting wisdom?
It’s funny—until Catfish, none of my films were angled at young people except for the fact that they were angled at me and my contemporaries. And that’s who I’m constantly making things for. I’m not imagining a younger audience I’m trying to impart wisdom to; I don’t want to seem pretentious enough to think I can impart wisdom. But being a part of Catfish—where we do spend time walking a mile in the shoes of kids in their early 20s across America, figuring out who they are—we do spend a lot of time w kids who are younger than us, giving them advice and helping them out. I wrote this movie while making Catfish, and the experience of hanging out with kids in their early 20s—learning about their fears, talking through their lives and insecurities—made its way into the script, in a good way, I think. But I’m not trying to be the wise man of the millennial generation just because I have grey hair.
Do you think that a story this specifically rooted in a trendy genre of music can transcend its setting?
I do. The story is very archetypal. We didn’t set out to reinvent the wheel when it came to the archetypal nature of a young person coming of age. Electronic music uses a lot of sampling and uses remixes. We’re remixing an old story. We’re doing it using contemporary details and set against contemporary life. The story can be contemporary to now, but also be timeless and universal in its themes—whether it’s Mean Streets and kids coming of age set to the Rolling Stones, or the late ‘70s with guys coming of age set to disco, or Trainspotting, with a group of guys coming of age set to electronic music. There’s a genre here and we were aware of how we were playing off of it. We wanted it to be timely and timeless.
Was it difficult to balance your notion of a coming-of-age story with the specificity of the setting unfamiliar to many viewers, all in the running time of a movie?
In all things in my life, I bite off way more than I can chew, but I am an editor. That’s how I came to filmmaking—that’s what I’m most confident about. I like having a lot of material to whittle down from. We were very ambitious and went after a lot. A lot is not even in the movie anymore; there were more storylines, and more of everything. The most important part of all of this is that you can step into the protagonist’s journey and go on the ride with him and forget you’re watching a movie and get lost in the movie. The story of the character and the emotion trumps how clever you’re trying to be or the commentary you’re trying to give. If you have a movie that’s all commentary and no heart, then congrats on trying to make something relevant that won’t succeed. You might as well be making a documentary. It’s about the characters, not the setting: You set the scene then follow the characters. The journey is timeless, but the scene is timely.
This movie is concerned with the concept of selling out. Does working with MTV and releasing a film with a big studio threaten to dilute whatever your fans perceive to be your credibility?
I had been making stuff independently for 11 years and Catfish came along. I’m not behind the scenes in Catfish that much. I am myself, and they can edit me however they want. Luckily, they edit me well. I’m not guiding their hand or helping shape the show, though I was part of that conversation back when we were figuring out what the show would be. We had a lot of input into the first episode and shaping the tone of the rest of it. Since then, I’ve had little role in shaping the show.
And this started as an independent film. We didn’t have any domestic distribution when it started. We were making it for so little money that there weren’t people breathing down my neck. We made the film we wanted to make with very little oversight. The film is an independent film. After we finished the movie, because we’d done stuff on social media and because Zac Efron is a big star and because it’s about a subculture that is quite large, a lot of studios in the U.S. were interested in buying this little independent film, where I thought the best case would be to go to a festival, show it there, and sell it. I got news one day Warner Brothers was buying the movie for domestic distribution, which was insane! I know nothing about the studio world. I knew a lot about the independent festival circuit, but nothing about the mainstream studio world and what reputation each studio has. Apparently Warner Brothers never picks up small movies like this.
This was a very unique situation. It’s a dream come true for me, because very few independent movies come out this wide and get a release like this. There’s a flip side to it, where you get the corporate backlash. Because people don’t know the origin story, they assume studio executives tried to figure out how to get money from festival goers so they put Zac Efron in a movie as a DJ. This is par for the course for the cynicism we all have. A lot of people feel like the corporate hand of Hollywood is stuffing this down their throat. I get it. I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that.
Do you follow the electronic-music scene now? How has it changed?
I do still go—when I have time, I love going to parties. I don’t love going to clubs. Going to a Hollywood bottle-service club, I don’t enjoy that. It’s very class-driven—the VIP section, getting in, getting to the front of the line, getting comped—[that] bugs me. I sometimes do like the music. It depends on who the DJ is. I like going to off-the-beaten-path clubs too, but it depends. The music has changed a little bit, because electronic music has crossed over into mainstream American culture in the form of EDM. It has changed the form of festivals. They’re more bro-heavy than they used to be. And more 14- and 15-year-old kids than before. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. It just happens. It’s just evolution. Electronic music has made it into the mainstream. If that can serve as a gateway to more niche stuff, then I’m glad.